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Harris County Public Health & Environmental Services

Measles comes back to Houston

We all vaccinated our kids, right?

Five cases of measles have been confirmed in the greater Houston area, a regional cluster that makes Texas the eleventh state this year to report the highly contagious disease until recently thought virtually eliminated in the U.S.

The cases, all announced Monday, include three in Harris County, one in Galveston County and one in Montgomery County. They involve four children, all under 2 years of age, and a woman between the ages of 25 and 35. All are doing well now.

“This is a reminder for people to be on guard and be up to date on their vaccinations,” said Dr. Umair A. Shah, executive director for Harris County Public Health. “Measles, a serious disease, is in our community.”

Measles, caused by an airborne virus, is particularly dangerous, capable of causing serious neurological disorders and death in infants and the developing fetus in pregnant women. It is spread through direct contact with discharge through the nose and mouth as well as coughing and sneezing.

Shah said it was too early to say whether the five cases might be the start of a local outbreak. The counties are monitoring anyone exposed to the measles patients while they were contagious to see if they develop symptoms. None has so far.

Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, said he’s concerned because in the pre-vaccine era, measles typically peaked in the late winner and early spring. He said “a perfect storm could be coming.”

[…]

It was unclear Monday if a lack of vaccination played a role in any of the Houston-area cases. All four children had received the first of the two shots — the second is given between the ages of 4 and 6 — and the woman said she’d been vaccinated, though the county is still working to confirm that through records.

Shah noted that the first dose of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is fully protective in 85 percent of those who get it, but there’s no way of knowing if a child is in that group or the 15 percent who need the second shot to receive full protection.

Shah also noted that the person or persons who originally transmitted the virus may have been unvaccinated, he said.

The good news is that this outbreak is limited. This story said that Houston’s vaccination rate is above the national average, while this other story says just the opposite; I’m not sure what to make of that. It’s still a lot of cases at one time, and we’re already close to the nine cases total in Houston from last year. It could be worse, as the people in the greater Portland area can attest, but there’s no reason at all why it should be. You can listen to a short but timely interview with Dr. Hotez about the resurgence of measles here, and Texas Monthly has more.

Let’s use mutant mosquitoes to fight Zika

What could possibly go wrong?

The Bayou City’s teeming mosquito population spawns in dark, wet nooks and carries a slew of deadly tropical diseases that could ravage the region.

So Houston is pondering a sneak attack, something akin to a Trojan Horse. Harris County officials are negotiating with a British biotech company, Oxitec, to create and release mutant mosquitoes genetically engineered so that after they’re set loose in the wild, offspring die, and the mosquito population dwindles.

Deric Nimmo, principal scientist at Oxitec, said it is a paradigm shift – “the release of mosquitoes to control mosquitoes.”

If an agreement is finalized, Harris County could become one of the first locations in the United States to use the mosquitoes, going far beyond the chemicals and public-awareness campaigns the county has long relied upon.

[…]

Oxitec spun off from Oxford University 15 years ago to commercialize proprietary strains of insects, namely mosquitoes. The hope is that they can help reduce populations of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which carry the Zika virus, dengue fever and chikungunya, among other deadly illnesses. The mosquitoes are common in the Houston region.

Oxitec inserts a “self-limiting gene” into a male mosquito and releases several into the environment. Those mosquitoes then mate with females – Oxitec claims their special males out-compete normal males – and the resulting offspring die before they become adults. Over time, the overall population of the Aedes mosquito declines.

Male mosquitoes do not bite and can’t spread disease.

The company has conducted field trials in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands and says it has reduced the Aedes mosquito populations by up to 90 percent in each location.

“It looks like we’re going to do or plan to do some sort of trial initially to test out the system,” Nimmo said.

Oxitec has yet to try out its technology in the U.S.

[…]

According to the FDA, if Oxitec wanted to conduct a field trial in Harris County, the company would have to submit an environmental assessment to the agency.

Another complication: Regulatory authority over Oxitec’s mosquitoes would then likely shift to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mustapha Debboun, director of the Harris County Mosquito Control Division, said working with Oxitec could provide another tool in the fight against Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

“We’re not abandoning the tried-and-true” approaches, said Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who has been leading the efforts. “We’re willing to see – What can we add to the tried-and-true that can make this better, especially considering that the tried-and-true has some flaws?”

Unseasonably warm weather has prompted the division to boost staff during winter months. It has seven investigators now, compared to four, and two additional public education staffers, Debboun said.

In August, officials nearly doubled the number of Aedes mosquito traps across the county to 134. Harris County also continues to partner with Microsoft to develop high-tech traps that will sense and nab only certain species of mosquitoes, like those that carry Zika or dengue, and eventually hopes to utilize drones to find and target hot spots.

After receiving a federal grant, the county hopes by May to start research on whether mosquitoes in the region that could carry Zika are developing resistance to certain pesticides. The county also will use that money to test more mosquitoes for Zika, Debboun said.

“The crucial part of all this is to find out if the mosquito has the virus in it,” he said.

Yes, remember the Microsoft Mosquito Drone story? Nice to hear about it again, even if there isn’t much to report yet. As far as Oxitec goes, their approach is one I’ve heard about as a possible way to limit the growth of the A. aegypti population and the many diseases it helps propagate. Maybe it will work without serious unanticipated side effects, but we would be the US pioneers for such a test. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but as the consequences of doing too little are West Nile and Zika, I’m not sure how wishy washy one can be about this. What do you think?

The parks part of the county bond package

The plans are more specific for the part of the bond package that’s easier to sell.

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Commissioner Jack Morman thinks of the East Aldine residents waiting outside Crowley Park before dawn for workers to unlock the gates. Commissioner Steve Radack cites Easter weekend crowds of roughly 75,000 at Bear Creek Park. Commissioner El Franco Lee pictures the opening day parade of Little Leaguers at his eponymous park. Commissioner Jack Cagle riffs on the joy of encountering turtles, egrets, herons and bald eagles along his greenways, mere miles from neighborhoods.

Harris County officials said they are in locked in a steady struggle to keep pace providing plentiful green space amenities as the population of unincorporated Harris County continues to grow unabated. They’re asking voters to approve millions in improvements in four upcoming ballot measures that total $848 million.

The $60 million park bond will help fund land acquisition, as well as updates and improvements in the county’s 170 parks. If the voters approve it, the money will be split four ways and each commissioner has discretion to spend his pot on park projects of his choosing, pending approval of Commissioners Court. They don’t need to pin the money to any specific undertaking. Each commissioner takes a unique approach to doling out the funds.

Commissioners said they almost never request all of the money up front. It’s usually spent to supplement projects that are underway as the costs come up. Bill Jackson, the county budget director, said there isn’t a final deadline for cashing in on bond money. In some cases, if the need never materializes, the bond debt is not issued, as was the case of the bond for a family law center that never got built.

Constituent needs vary throughout the county and within each precinct: “What matters to somebody in the northeast might not matter to somebody in the southeast,” Morman said.

In his precinct, he said, “We err on the side of doing something the community would love. My personal tastes don’t come into it.”

You can read the rest for each commissioner’s detailed wish list. The sidebar reminds us of the other items in the bond package, the biggest part of which is $700 million for roads and bridges, though we don’t know what the particulars are for that. What are your thoughts on these bond proposals?

Endorsement watch: Bonds, five bonds

There are four Harris County bond issues on the ballot this fall. The Chron supports them all, with some reservations. I’m just going to focus on the first one, since it’s by far the biggest and the one for which there is the strongest argument against it.

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Proposition 1 – For

More than 75 percent of Harris County’s growth in the past 15 years has been in the unincorporated county. In those suburban and exurban developments, nearly 2 million people look to their county commissioner as their only representative for local needs – and today they need roads. From the new Exxon-Mobil campus in the north to Port of Houston traffic in the east and new neighborhoods all around, Harris County’s road system is being pushed to the limit.

The commissioners want $700 million to make sure that the people moving into their new homes and driving to new jobs don’t hit a gridlock on day one. Of that, $60 million will be spent repairing roads in older subdivisions, such as near FM 1960.

However, unlike school bonds or the city’s annual capital improvement plan, the county provides no public list of intended goals. People who live within the city of Houston probably won’t benefit directly from any of that spending, despite our pockmarked streets. That’s a tough sell for the skeptical voter.

Nevertheless, these roads are needed if Harris County is to keep growing, and that growth will help everyone in the region no matter where you live.

Our Gulf Coast metropolis exists in a tangled web of overlapping local governments that nobody would willingly design from the groundup. The millions living in the unincorporated county need their own cities to provide local services. The economic engines of downtown, the Texas Medical Center and the Galleria area need more support from county government. But before we can take a serious look at reforming local government, voters need to approve Proposition 1.

I tried to schedule an interview with County Commissioner Steve Radack to discuss the bond issues, but we weren’t able to make it happen. The Chron lays out the main objection to this – it’s basically going to enable more sprawl, but won’t do much if anything for the already-built environment. Take whatever action you deem appropriate on this one – whatever happens, I’m sure this won’t be the last time we’re asked to authorize capital expenditure for more county roads. The other three issues, having to do with parks, veterinary and animal adoption services, and flood mitigation ponds (which, let’s be honest, would not be as needed if we were better stewards of the natural flood mitigation areas in the county and surrounding areas) are all worthwhile and I’ll vote for them. This one will be a game day decision. I will note that I did receive a mailer touting the county bond referenda the other day. I’d been wondering what kind advocacy there would be for them, if any, given the close call that the 2012 jail referendum had and the likelihood of some “No”-minded voters coming out because they think they’ll get to vote on HERO. It’s not much, but it’s something.

Also on the ballot for some of you is a San Jacinto College bond referendum.

San Jacinto College, one of nine Gulf Coast regional community college systems, serves as a bridge between a diverse group of high school students -­ 77 percent of whom are the first in their families to go to college – and the burgeoning requirements of a regional hub of the energy, manufacturing, maritime and aerospace industry.

Passage of the $425 million San Jacinto bond referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot will provide students a state-of-the-art education in dozens of careers and improve the competitiveness of the workforce for local businesses and industry.

I’m in HCC territory, so I know next to nothing about any of this. I’m including this for completeness. What are your thoughts on these issues?

It’s what comes after the rain that’ll get you

All that rain we got was great and badly needed to finally kill off last year’s drought. But we know what comes next.

Culex skeeter, West Nile carrier

In the last three weeks, Harris County has confirmed three cases of this potentially deadly disease in humans. Meanwhile, officials are finding the virus in more and more birds, and infected mosquitoes are spreading quickly, despite preventive spraying. The number of Harris County ZIP codes where mosquitoes tested positive for West Nile skyrocketed from six in early June to 71 as of Tuesday.

While the number of cases of West Nile in humans is just average so far this year, Harris County’s mosquito control director Dr. Rudy Bueno is concerned by an unusual spike in bird deaths from the same virus. The birds had been strategically placed in storm sewers around the county.

“We’re finding more dead birds, in particular blue jays,” he said. “They’re the sentinels. Once they start to die, it’s a red flag. That means the virus activity is pretty high.”

Bird deaths recently were recorded in six Harris County ZIP codes: 77040, 77055, 77065, 77345, 77449 and 77493.

When this virus, which originated in the West Nile valley of Uganda, was introduced into this area about 10 years ago, it killed many birds that had not yet built up immunities. But since then, Bueno said, bird deaths have been declining.

“Yet this year, the numbers are increasing again,” Bueno said. West Nile initially infects birds, which then are bitten by mosquitoes that in turn infect humans.

You can go to http://hcphes.org/mc to see where mosquitoes with West Nile virus have been found. No matter how much the county sprays, remember that the varmints you see most likely came from your own back yard. Look around for any standing water and take whatever action you can to drain it. Every little bit helps.

There are also bigger concerns.

One resident recently encountered a 5-foot, 6-inch alligator in her garage, across from Woodland Park near White Oak Bayou.

Fred Ruiz, Harris County captain for Texas Parks and Wildlife, said the alligators have been spotted more frequently this year in residential neighborhoods because of the rain.

He said the Seabrook area – where a dog was killed by an alligator estimated at 12 feet in late June – has experienced a lot of gator activity.

“They end up in the craziest places,” Ruiz said.

“Especially when it rains, the bayou becomes like a highway for gators,” he said. “They will wander into garages, anywhere that is cool.”

Game wardens trapped the Heights gator last Wednesday and released it into its natural habitat.

One presumes that was someplace other than the Heights. Keep your eyes open, that’s all I’m saying.